Tooth decay is a silent pandemic; it occurs globally in apparent excess of what is expected, but it often escapes attention. Almost all adults and 52% of school children have some dental cavity, and 17% of the elderly population lacks any natural teeth (National Institute of Health, 2018, para. 3). These problems, and more, are mainly attributable to poor oral hygiene. Many people are not remarkably ignorant about the preventive benefits of brushing and flossing their teeth at least once a day, but they are often distracted. Improving inhibitory control can help one form the proper oral hygiene habits.
Inhibitory control is a core executive function indispensable in forming the right oral hygiene habits. It enables an individual to overcome internal predispositions or external influence by controlling their thoughts, emotions, behavior, and attention, consequently doing the most appropriate thing (Gao et al., 2019). Improving inhibitory control can help a person sieve out behavioral impediments to cleaning their teeth. In other words, enhancing inhibitory control will grant one the discipline to complete actions, lean to a clean mouth despite distractions, and overcome the temptation to indulge in risky behavior of devouring excessive sugary foods.
To make teeth brushing a habit, it is essential to understand the fundamental steps of habit formation. All routines are formed and reinforced through a “habit loop” comprising four stages: cue, craving, response, reward (Clear, 2018). The first step, cue, is what triggers the brain into initiating behavior. It has to be present and, as Clear (2018) recommends, obvious for the desired habit to start. A person’s brain naturally scans their internal and external environment for rewards and will only record a cue if the payoff is close.
The second step in the habit loop, and perhaps the most important one, is craving. A significant level of motivation or desire is necessary to induce action. Usually, what people crave is not the habit in question but the change it causes. For example, one might chew gum or brush because they crave the feeling of a clean mouth. Again, heeding Clear’s (2018) advice, making the freshness of breath “attractive” can be effective in cementing the habits of brushing and flossing. Since cravings differ from one person to another, it is vital to identify a cue that coincides with one’s nature and use it to spark a desire for a clean mouth.
The crux of habit formation is the third stage: response. It refers to the actual habit one performs in response to the problem identified and defined in the previous two phases. Its occurrence depends on the extent to which an individual is motivated and antagonizing forces. This stage is particularly where inhibitory control becomes crucial. One needs to suppress competing behaviors, such as watching a favorite TV program when they should be cleaning their mouth. Making the behavior easy and convenient can further increase one’s odds of mastering it (Clear, 2018). Response leads to reward – in this case, the end goals of oral hygiene. Because habits hinge on reward, it is perfectly sensible to make brushing and flossing – oral hygiene – rewarding for the brain to learn the habits worth remembering to deliver that satisfaction in the future.
However, one may argue that inhibitory control is not the answer to the widespread reluctance to clean the teeth regularly. One reason could be that a person’s background can render it difficult to overcome distractions since Marshall et al. (2016) demonstrated that growing up in stressful conditions undermined response inhibition. Indeed, stressful situations are numerous, including poverty; however, the consequences of poor oral hygiene highlighted herein permeate all societies and social stratifications.
In conclusion, the consequences of poor dental care habits have escalated to a pandemic level. Dental diseases and related complications are preventable through regular brushing and flossing of the teeth. It is, however, asserted in this plan that it is possible to develop exemplary practices for oral hygiene. Improving inhibitory control can strengthen the habit loop, enabling one to notice the rewards of a clean mouth, craving them, and respond appropriately.
Clear, J. (2018). Atomic habits: Tiny changes, remarkable results: An easy & proven way to build good habits & break bad ones. Avery.
Gao, Q., Jia, G., Zhao, J., & Zhang, D. (2019). Inhibitory control in excessive social networking users: Evidence from an event-related potential-based Go-Nogo task. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 1810. Web.
Marshall, D. F., Passarotti, A. M., Ryan, K. A., Kamali, M., Saunders, E. F., Pester, B., McInnis, M. G., & Langenecker, S. A. (2016). Deficient inhibitory control as an outcome of childhood trauma. Psychiatry Research, 235, 7-12. Web.
National Institute of Health. (2018). Dental caries (tooth decay) in adults (age 20 to 64). National Institute of Health. Web.